3 Surprises We Learned About Teaching Online Group Classes

Like most American teachers, we have stopped all physical classes since the COVID-19 crisis shut our schools down. However, thanks to modern technology, we have been teaching all our group classes online for the past two weeks. So far feedback from teachers, students and parents have been positive, and we were able to continue our students’ learning without too much disruption. There were many hurdles to jump through and we’re still solving technical issues daily, but we have also learned a few surprises about teaching online group classes that we had not expected before we started this process.

Effective Learning Using Virtual Whiteboards

The teaching (and learning) has so far been effective on online platforms such as Zoom. We need to adjust some of our lesson delivery, e.g. the use of physical manipulative for the “concrete” part of the concrete-pictorial-abstract (CPA) process is out of question, but most of the time, illustrating on the whiteboard, “writing” over worksheets etc is as clear as the in-person classes.

Using the interactive virtual whiteboard to work through problems

However, the platform we tried so far are not very conducive to letting students present their work, an integral part of small group math classes. Teachers are equipped with either a stylus to write on a touchscreen or a external drawing tablet, but it is not reasonable to assume students have similar hardware or are comfortable enough with the technology to not interfere with their learning. Hence most of the time, students work out their answers on paper and held it up to show the class when sharing their thinking. This is a little frustrating, especially for younger kids, and highlights one of the shortcomings of real-time education platforms that evolved from corporate online meeting applications.

To overcome this, we have to rely more on verbal communications, with both teachers and students using more words to describe their thinking than visual presentation. A little patience in the process helps, especially in the beginning.

Classroom Management Is Still Crucial In Online Group Classes

It took us only one day to realize we need to re-establish ground rules when it comes to online group classes. We quickly wrote out a set of expected online classroom behavior so that both teachers and students are on the same page. These rules include:

  • No using chat feature for student to student chatting, but only to inform the teacher if the video or audio is malfunctioning.
  • Ask to be excused before leaving, e.g. for bathroom breaks etc.
  • Mute all students when not in discussion, i.e. when the teacher is presenting.
  • Do not draw on the virtual whiteboard when not told to do so.
Re-establishing classroom rules for online group classes

At the first online lesson, we asked students to acknowledge these new rules. They soon understood that despite the classes being moved online, we’re trying to learn as before and observing these behaviors makes it easier for everyone else to participate in the lessons. In subsequent lessons, teachers have to remind students of the rules whenever students forget.

Students Social Behavior

All our offline classes are an hour and a half long. At first, we were concerned if students, especially younger kids, were able to keep their attention for the full 90 mins if all they have is a virtual whiteboard. However, we found that the group class dynamics that helped stimulate thinking and discussions were readily ported to an online setting, as soon as the kids see their friends on their screen. Once we ground rules were established and students got comfortable with the new platform, discussions started to flow.

teach group classes online
Students enjoy seeing their friends online

On the other hand, we observed some social behaviors that were not what we expected. This may be because the students are still getting used to the online social setting, so our observation is not very conclusive. Firstly, we observed that some of the more active kids seemed more “calm” online. We suspect it is due to the fact that in the physical classroom, they were trying to get the attention of their classmates or teacher, but in the remote online environment, everybody is looking at everyone else. Secondly, we also observed that quiet kids start to speak up. We think this may be because their natural voice used to be drowned out in usual classroom setting or cannot project to the whole classroom, but with the laptop’s microphone, everyone can hear each other clearly. So, we were very happy to see that in this case, technology actually serves to level out some inequalities in the classroom!


Obviously, these are uncharted waters, and all of us are still in the testing phase of this online learning model, so none of our observations so far have been very conclusive. Teaching online group classes is very different from teaching one-to-one online because of the group dynamics, and also different from teaching in-person group classes. While we adjust to this new norm, it is very reassuring to see that despite the challenges and discomfort, the learning continues without break. Who knows, we may find things that work better in this new way of teaching.

3 thoughts on “3 Surprises We Learned About Teaching Online Group Classes”

  1. We are a K-5th small Christian elem &, prior to Covid-19, very intentionally did not introduce tech for student use until 4th. We wanted them to have a passion for reading & hands-on exploration. So moving to on-line has been a big learning curve for both staff & our families. Zoom & Google Classroom are working great for us.
    For the early grades, going live was not productive, so Our teachers taped 10-15 min instructional clips for phonics/LA & math (both of which use their own lingo, so we can’t just send directions to the parent. The bonus we’re finding with that is, for the kids who often need repeated instruction, they can replay it as often as needed. So for K-2nd, that seems to be the approach that’s age appropriate & easier on the parents’ load. 3rd has 2 brief live/recorded sessions for math & LA. American History & Science have been paired down since we know they’ll have those same topics again in MS & HS.
    In math, each child has a small who tend. So as the teacher asks mental math qs, each child can quickly write their answer (we’ve learned to have them wait and show them at the same time so we know who really knows & who doesn’t…not allowing them to see another student’s answer ahead). This has worked really well & the kids enjoy have their own little whitebds.4th & 5th were more easily moved to virtual, but we’re still working on the virtual live class since many of our families have MS &/or HS siblings are a being held to “attend each class in uniform” at the time it would normally be scheduled, thus requiring these students to sit for almost 6 hrs of on-line teaching a day!
    If your school is doing this, pls stop…it is not healthy for the students or teachers! We still adjusting the amt of live/recorded teacher led discussion time, esp w/Lit, history, Bible & writing, which are interwoven. Any ideas abt pairing down that time while still helping learn the art of discussion, pls let me know. We’ve paired science way bk & do math live/recorded to be sure they all understand before they take on the work independently. The nice thing is, with the live being recorded, they can go bk easily to relisten to the instruction. We’re moving as much as we can to paperless for 3rd-5th, which is pretty easy w/Google Classroom & Google.docs. But, so far, we haven’t fd a good way to do that for K-2nd Math & Language Arts.
    Any ideas abt making it paperless for K-2nd would be helpful. Thx for your Blogs…always insiteful!

    1. Hi Sherry, thank you so much for sharing and for what you and your school are doing! We’re also experimenting with different solutions right now. Let’s keep this discussion open. I’m sure other teachers/schools have more great ideas. Stay safe and healthy!

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